More than two decades ago, many Augustans were afraid to walk downtown after sunset.
The work crowd would pack up for the evening and head off to the suburbs, leaving the city completely dead at night.
Downtown Augusta had no soul.
But that all began to change when two brothers, Coco and Jayson Rubio, took a chance on a vacant storefront at 984 Broad Street back in 1995.
The building was a former pawn shop which had eventually been purchased by Historic Augusta.
It was an opportunity that the Rubio brothers could not pass up, so they poured time, money and a whole lot of heart into the Broad Street building.
By October 1995, The Soul Bar was born and downtown Augusta would never be the same.
“I remember when we were sitting around trying to come up with the name,” Coco Rubio said, chuckling as he stretched out in one of the booths inside the bar. “Coming up with a name is tricky. And I remember saying, ‘We should call it The Soul Bar. That’s it. That’s the name.’ Because you have to have a Soul Bar in Augusta. You just have to. I’m just happy that we were able to do it. In fact, I’m kind of surprised nobody came up with it before us.”
Downtown Augusta needed a place where people could relax, enjoy a cold beer and listen to local music. But it also needed a place that would finally honor local music legend and “The Godfather of Soul” James Brown.
“I’ll never forget the first time Mr. Brown came in and checked the bar out,” Coco Rubio said, adding it was only a few months after The Soul Bar had opened. “He came in with (guitarist) Keith Jenkins and some other people from the band because they had talked to him about what we were doing here.”
Coco Rubio had met James Brown before, but this time “The Godfather” himself was walking through The Soul Bar, looking at all of the decor paying homage to this founding father of funk music.
It was a surreal experience, Coco Rubio said.
“When he came in, he just kind of checked everything out, played some pool and had a good time,” Coco Rubio said. “We were playing his music and, before he left, he came up to me and said, ‘Coco, y’all know what’s up.’”
That’s all he said, but it meant the world to the two young brothers.
“I was like, ‘Wow. This is so cool.’ For me, that kind of legitimized what we were doing,” Coco Rubio said. “This bar was in honor of him. All we just really wanted to do was pay respect to him.”
While honoring such an enormous legend seems like a no-brainer these days, not everyone in Augusta was singing James Brown’s praises about 20 years ago.
“This was before the city renamed Ninth Street to James Brown Boulevard and it was before the James Brown statue and the civic center being called the James Brown Arena,” Coco Rubio said. “But Mr. Brown knew we understood ‘what’s up.’ We needed The Soul Bar. Augusta needed The Soul Bar. And I think he respected that.”
As the former owner of a skate shop on Eighth Street, Coco Rubio knew downtown had great potential. For years he was the DJ at Squeaky’s Tip Top, on the corner of Monte Sano and Central avenues. It was at Squeaky’s that Disco Hell, his popular funk-based dance show, was born.
The atmosphere at Squeaky’s Tip Top was unlike anywhere else in Augusta, attracting a youthful crowd who appreciated the growing local sound.
Coco Rubio knew that was exactly the kind of bar that Broad Street needed.
So he partnered up with his younger brother, Jayson, who had just graduated from the University of Georgia in 1994.
“I was 24 when we opened this place,” Jayson Rubio said, laughing. “It is kind of crazy that it’s been 20 years.”
That same year, two of their friends, Barry Blackston and Matt Flynn, were working hard to open their restaurant, Nacho Mama’s, just a few doors down.
When the restaurant opened a few months later in 1996, the two new businesses fed off of each other’s positive energy.
“We knew Barry and Matt were doing Nacho Mama’s and we were hoping as soon as we opened we’d see a lot more things come downtown. That’s exactly what happened,” Coco Rubio said. “After Nacho opened, there was The Pizza Joint, Firehouse (Bar), Metro Coffeehouse and many more places coming downtown. A lot of things opened and some of them closed. People thought it was going to be easy to do. But it is not automatic. It takes a lot of work. But I’m happy to say there are more things downtown now than ever before.”
Downtown Augusta is alive and thriving and much different than when The Soul Bar opened it doors in 1995, Coco Rubio said.
“When we opened, there used to be a pay phone on the corner that everyone ran out and used to call their friends. And we had a phone with a ridiculously long cord behind the bar because people would say, ‘Can I borrow your phone for a minute?’ So we would pass it over to them,” Coco Rubio said, shaking his head. “Then, we had the cordless phone and it would get lost all the time. People would borrow it and they would walk outside with it. The next thing you know I’d say, ‘Where’s the phone?’ And they’d say, ‘We lost it.’”
These days, many of their customers don’t even know what pay phones or pagers are anymore.
“It’s a different world,” Jayson Rubio said, adding that even the bands featured at the bar have drastically changed over the years. “I remember about 10 years ago, jazz used to be really popular. We would have a good jazz band here on Wednesday night and it would be packed. We can’t do that anymore. A lot of the people who come in here, the younger crowd, they just want to dance, so the DJs are really popular.”
However, for Jayson Rubio, who’s been a member of local bands such as Deathstar and The Shaun Piazza Band, live music is what makes The Soul Bar so special.
“Myself, as a drummer, some of the best times I’ve had at Soul Bar have been when we’ve had bands play here that I’ve seen perform in Athens or Atlanta,” Jayson Rubio said, adding that some of his favorite shows at the bar over the years include the Athens-based band Five Eight and singer-songwriter Cat Power, who is originally from Atlanta.
But patrons at The Soul Bar have become accustomed to never knowing who will come strolling through the door.
“One of my favorites was when we did the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting with Bud Hudson on piano, Eric Kinlaw on bass, Bob Foster on saxophone and Clarence Carpenter on drums,” Coco Rubio said. “For two or three years, Wednesday nights were slammed and they were jamming.”
One night, something incredible happened.
“Wynton Marsalis was in town doing rehearsals at the Imperial Theatre because he was doing a performance with Wycliffe Gordon and the Augusta Ballet,” Coco Rubio said.
“Well, we were doing our jazz night and in comes Wynton Marsalis with Wycliffe through the door. Everybody was like, ‘Holy sh**, that is Wynton Marsalis!’”
Everyone inside The Soul Bar was shocked, particularly when he and members of his band got up on stage.
“I was upstairs and I remember they told me, ‘Turn off all the microphones. Kill the mics. We don’t want any mics on,’” Coco Rubio said. “So they played and they controlled the volume completely without mics. It was badass. Everybody just swarmed around the stage and they were tripping out.”
“To me, it was the highest level of musicianship that you’ll see,” Coco Rubio said. “People freaked out. It was awesome.”
Two other acts that were unforgettable at The Soul Bar were The Jennifer Nettles Band and Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings.
“Jennifer Nettles had just gotten done performing with Soul Miner’s Daughter and had gone solo,” Coco Rubio said, adding that she specifically asked if she could perform at The Soul Bar. “We told her of course, but we didn’t even have a stage back then. The band was playing on the floor and she packed it out. “The show went over so well that she again asked to play at The Soul Bar later that year.
“We realized when she wanted to play again that we had to get a stage because it was just too crowded around her. Everybody was touching the band,” Coco Rubio said. “So we got her a stage and she was incredible. Now, of course, she’s in Sugarland and she’s just exploded.”
When Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings stopped by to check out the bar prior to their show, many of the band members didn’t think it would be possible for them to play in such a crowded space.
“The first time they played, 12 guys came in with Sharon and they asked, ‘Where are we playing?’” Coco Rubio said. “I told them, ‘Right here,’ and pointed to the small stage.”
But somehow the band squeezed on the stage and not only made it work, but brought down the house.
“They killed it,” Coco Rubio said. “It was a nonstop show. Sharon even brought her sister and several family members with her to hang out. It was amazing.”
Not all acts, however, have such a successful show at The Soul Bar.
“It is funny when Drive-By Truckers talk about playing here at The Soul Bar,” Coco Rubio said. “They’ll tell you that everyone loved the local band, which was Deathstar, but they’ll joke, ‘When we played, we ran everybody out.’”
As a member of Deathstar, Jayson Rubio said he remembers that night very vividly.
“When they played it was loud as sh**,” Jayson Rubio said, laughing. “It was so loud that it was uncomfortable.”
There is nothing worse for a band to be playing on stage and have a crowd of people quickly walk past them towards the exit, Jayson Rubio said.
“When bands are playing and the people are leaving right in front of them, they can’t help but notice it,” he said.
One particular night at The Soul Bar that absolutely no one left early was the day of James Brown’s funeral back in 2006.
Several members of Brown’s band came to the bar to celebrate the Godfather’s life and his legacy.
“There were probably 50 people on the stage performing that night,” Coco Rubio said. “It was completely packed. It was so emotional because it wasn’t like everyone was sad, really. They were just celebrating Mr. Brown. It was a very special night.”
The Soul Bar has also brought its own share of excitement into the Rubios’ lives.
“One day, while we were ordering some things for the bar, I remember we had a guy walk in with a big shotgun. And we were like, ‘Oh, f***,’” Coco Rubio said, shaking his head and laughing. “He looked at us and was like, ‘Is this a pawn shop?’
The brothers could immediately breath again.
“We told him, ‘No. No. No.’ All he wanted was to pawn his gun, so we pointed him down the street,” Coco Rubio said, laughing. “So, he just turned around with his gun and walked out the door.”
As the two brothers talk, reminisce and joke about the bar’s past, it is easy to see where the laidback atmosphere of The Soul Bar originated.
Of course, the bar is about cheap beer, live music and good conversation.
But, more importantly, The Soul Bar is about family.
“Now that it’s been 20 years, maybe our parents might leave us alone and stop asking, ‘When are you guys going to get real jobs?’” Coco Rubio said, chuckling.
Jayson Rubio jokingly agreed, adding that their parents love to point out the rips in the booths’ seat cushions.
“Our parents get mad about how bad the booths look,” Jayson Rubio said, explaining that the cushions constantly get holes in them because girls stand up on them wearing heels. “I keep telling them, if we get new ones they will get torn up right away. It is fine for what we do here. We are not fancy.”
Since the bar opened in 1995, Coco Rubio has gotten married to his best friend, Holly, and they’ve raised a beautiful 17-year-old daughter, Maya.
When asked how he’ll feel when Maya walks into The Soul Bar for the first time about four years from now when she is 21, Coco Rubio just laughed.
“Sh**,” Coco Rubio said, smiling. “That will be the time to retire.”
All joking aside, Coco Rubio said he’s not worried about Maya because he and his wife have raised a very intelligent young woman who’s not interested in drinking and partying like many teens her age.
“For her, it is not a big deal,” he said. “I guess, it’s because she has grown up around the business her entire life. And I’m sure when she’s 21, she’ll say, ‘I don’t want to go there and hang out with my dad!’”
But as he gets older, Coco Rubio admits the long nights and getting home at 4 a.m. have become more challenging.
“I’m 48 now. I’ll be 50 pretty soon, so do I keep on doing this?” he asked. “My thing is, Maya is a junior. Holly and Maya hang out on the weekends and they do a lot of stuff together. Holly has always been cool with me working and very supportive because, when she met me, I was already doing this.”
However, when Maya heads off to college, he admits things may need to change.
“I don’t want to leave Holly at home by herself,” he said, scratching his beard. “To me, that’s almost when I will maybe need to stay home more. I just wonder about it. I am going to have to figure out how I am going to deal with that.”
Coco Rubio pauses for a moment and chuckles.
“The truth is, she’ll probably get sick of me and say, ‘You need to go off to work,’” Coco Rubio said, laughing. “But for me, The Soul Bar has made living in Augusta absolutely wonderful. I love living here. And this bar enabled me to stay home with Maya. You can’t put a price on that.”
After 20 years, even their parents realize the significant impact The Soul Bar has had on downtown Augusta.
“When people talk to my parents and they say how much Soul Bar means to them, they get it,” Coco Rubio said. “But they always kind of like giving us a hard time. Of course, after 20 years, we just kind of ignore it now. This is what we do.”